In a rare spectacle, all 100 U.S. senators boarded multiple buses on Wednesday for a short trip down to the White House, where they took part in an unusual briefing delivered by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Director of Intelligence Dan Coats, and Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
On the docket: The rising tensions in North Korea.
The senators were reportedly briefed for about an hour at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
In a joint statement released after the meeting was over, Mattis, Tillerson, and Coats said, “The United States seeks stability and the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. We remain open to negotiations towards that goal. However, we remain prepared to defend ourselves and our allies.”
The three continued: “The president’s approach aims to pressure North Korea into dismantling its nuclear, ballistic missile, and proliferation programs by tightening economic sanctions and pursuing diplomatic measures with our allies and regional partners.”
The senators who attended the briefing were relatively tight-lipped about what was said, although several Democrats whined that the event was more a PR opportunity than anything else. Of course, what else would you expect from the party that thought, surely, “strategic patience” would have worked out by now?
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee the next day, U.S. Pacific Commander Harry B. Harris Jr. said the U.S. had no choice but to take Kim Jong Un’s increasingly-unhinged rhetoric at face value.
“The crisis on the Korean peninsula is real – the worst I’ve seen,” Harris said. “There is some doubt within the intelligence community whether Kim Jong Un has [long-range nuclear] capability today or whether he will soon, but I have to assume he has it, the capability is real, and that he’s moving towards it.”
Harris said that with the imminent deployment of THAAD – a missile defense system the U.S. is preparing on South Korean soil – the Trump administration hopes to limit Kim’s offensive possibilities.
“We want to bring Kim Jong Un to his senses, not to his knees,” he said. However, he noted, “I have the forces in place to fight tonight if necessary.”
A rogue state like North Korea has very few advantages when it comes to conflict with the civilized West, but they do have one: While Kim Jong Un may not be precisely suicidal, his country is in such a sorry state that he legitimately has very little to lose in a nuclear confrontation with the United States. In the U.S., on the other hand, we’re living high on the hog and would quite prefer it if we could avoid any unpleasantness of a war-like nature, please and thank you.
Until and unless Kim turns a nuclear/ballistic missile test into a nuclear/ballistic missile strike against the U.S. or one of our allies, public support for war will remain extremely low. Kim and his Chinese benefactors know this, which is why they’re counting on their threats to force the U.S. back to the negotiating table…where they can hopefully get one of those sweet Obama-Iran agreements from America’s new dealmaker-in-chief.
If we know Trump, though, no such deal is coming.
That puts us in a highly-volatile situation – a game of geopolitical chicken, for lack of a better word – where we wait to see if Kim Jong Un is really mad enough to condemn his own people to annihilation.